Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Climate resistance, holidays

August 24th, 2008 Posted in Climate Change, Conspiracy Theories

I’m off on holiday in a few hours, expected back late on Sunday night (31st August). I’m not expecting to add any more posts until Monday 1st September.

Just in the mean time, I thought I’d say something to the folks at Climate Resistance, whose blog was shown to me a few days ago.  Now, before I start, I have no intention whatsoever of pretending to be an expert on climate change, though I do claim to be an expert on the scientific process.  I put forward a few thoughts rather more as speculative questions and ideas that may well have perfectly valid answers, but which I feel ought to be considered.  Also, I agreed with their recent post on the activities of charities in Africa and how the modern world seems to be rebelling agaisnt the modern science and technology that gives them such an unprecedented standard of life. For what it’s worth, I think that the current trend of sending aid to Africa is massively destructive, but that’s a story for another time.

So, to climate change.  To get my opinion out first, as I am (like all humans) biased: I believe that climate change is a real and potentially dangerous scenario, with human activity the major contribution to this. I believe that most scientists are conservatively underestimating the scope of this effect. I view all theories which disagree with the IPCC findings to be substantially against the scientific consensus and are, therefore, conspiracy theories. And, as I’ve said before, all conspiracy theories are wrong. 🙂

Firstly, it seems to me that most criticism of the theory of human-induced global warming seems to centre around the concept of uncertainty.  Most critics admit that there’s some warming effect and that humans are causing some of it, but they are highly dubious of the concept that we’re causing most of it, and that we can do something to stop it.

The IPCC seems to disagree, stating in its most recent report that “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.”  Very likely, in their definitions, means more than 90%. The IPCC, in order to generate such an opinion, surveys the peer-reviewed scientific literature, not just the Daily Mail.

Critisicm of the IPCC seems to focus on a few points.  Firstly, they are a review body – not actually carrying out research themselves, but rather aggregating and reviewing the research carried out by others.  That doesn’t worry me – if anything, not having spent their entire lives dedicated to proving one particular side of the debate makes them more reliable.  Around 90% of the members of the IPCC seem to be from the various member governments who, as far as I can see, have a massive incentive to underestimate the effect. After all, dealing with climate change will negatively affect the nations involved, and will have a greater negative effect on those that are the richest, and (presumably) send more people to the IPCC.

So the IPCC is apparently composed principally of individuals with a vested interest in underestimating the potential effects of climate change, and they review the entire corpus of scientifically peer-reviewed literature.  The viewpoints of a few scientists who disagree with this, perhaps due to personal prejudices, should be weighed against the majority.

As a final point, I would compare the concept of climate skepticism against something more readily understandable as a human. Let’s say you felt unwell and went to the doctor to get a checkup.  Imagine that the doctor said that the test showed that it was 95% chance that you had some sort of advanced medical condition like liver disease or cancer, that the disease was 90% likely to be caused by your own diet and lifestyle, and that there was a chance of reducing or totally curing this disease by coupling a substantial change in lifestyle with some more radical medical treatment.  Let’s say that 9/10 doctors agreed with this sentiment, but a few weren’t certain and thought that perhaps the risk was overstated and that maybe the tests could be explained in other ways.

Of course, the human desire would be to believe this minority of doctors who had the good news, not the majority with the bad news.  Perhaps some of those dissenting doctors were selling a pill that could help to cure you of your alleged ills.  Some probably weren’t – they were just genuinely skeptical.  That’s ok, I like skepticism – in fact, I insist on it.  But here’s the problem – the majority of doctors have said that there is almost certainly something very wrong with you that could kill you if left untreated, and which could at least be tackled by a substantial change in diet and lifestyle, and may well be cured completely.

Who amongst you could honestly say that, faced with this information, you would say “Actually, thanks for that, but I’m going to keep smoking and drinking heavily and I’ll see what happens.  Let me know when you’re 100% certain that I’m dying and tell me if there’s still anything I can do or if it’s too late.”  That, to me, sounds like suicide.

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  1. 3 Responses to “Climate resistance, holidays”

  2. By Andy on Dec 3, 2008

    “I do claim to be an expert on the scientific process. ”

    In the same breath you say

    “I believe that climate change is a real and potentially dangerous scenario…

    I believe that most scientists are conservatively underestimating the scope of this effect…

    I view all theories which disagree with the IPCC findings to be substantially against the scientific consensus and are, therefore, conspiracy theories.”

    I believe, I believe… Climate change an article of faith?? I can scarcely trust my eyes that a Doctor of Philosophy takes such a daft, unscientific approach. If you want religion get the real thing.

    The only scientific attitude one can take on any subject is whether it is true or not. It is not a question of belief, or opinion, or viewpoint.

    A little more rigour, and er, science please!

  3. By Colin on Dec 4, 2008

    Nonsense – virtually nothing in science is so clear-cut – science is all about assigning likelihoods and probabilities. A belief is simply a statement about your own assessment of the state of the Universe.

    So yes, I believe things to be true because the evidence points very strongly in that direction. The word ‘belief’, as used by religions, means something altogether different – implying that there is a component of blind faith involved: “I believe because I cannot prove”, rather than “I believe because the evidence suggests that it is very likely”.

    I don’t find quibbling over definitions to be very constructive.

  4. By Climate Resistance on Mar 17, 2009

    Thanks for the discussion, Colin. Sorry it’s taken so long to find this post again. It was pointed out to me at a busier time, but I forgot. I hope it’s not rude to answer you so late.

    A couple of your criticisms seem inconsistent.

    For instance, you say that you ‘believe that most scientists are conservatively underestimating the scope of this effect. I view all theories which disagree with the IPCC findings to be substantially against the scientific consensus…’

    If, in your view, ‘most scientists are conservatively underestimating’, then your view is necessarily at odds with the consensus/IPCC, lumping you in with the conspiracy theorists.

    Secondly, you argue that ‘it seems to me that most criticism of the theory of human-induced global warming seems to centre around the concept of uncertainty.’

    We’ve looked at this criticism extensively on Climate Resistance. Uncertainty in the climate debate works two ways. As much as the concept of uncertainty is central to *some* sceptical arguments, it is absolutely at the centre of *most* environmentalism in the form of the precautionary principle. Necessarily, the sceptic’s use of uncertainty is owed to the centrality of the precautionary principle in environmental politics.

    We recognise that fighting arguments about uncertainty with uncertainty is a pretty pointless task. Our interest is about what makes such uncertainty so politically charged. ‘Our survival’, you might answer. But this is the basis on which the US/UK launched its war on terror, we argue. Clearly, uncertainty plays a substantial role in contemporary political discourse, and precaution is the dominant strategy. That needs to be understood before we can understand the context in which the climate change debate is unfolding, we argue.

    Thirdly, you point to the IPCC’s level of confidence, ‘very likely’, but you neglect the caveats: ‘most’…’observed’…’averaged’… ‘since’…

    90% of how much? Since when? It’s certainly not clear. You are against Mail-esque slogans, but the IPCC statement has very little scientific meaning. The process of interpreting the statement is beset by subjectivity. If, as we (and you seem to) argue, politics is often prior to science, then the statement cannot be taken at face value. It is clear that the statement doesn’t speak for itself – you needed to interpret it, which speaks more about the faith you have invested in the process by which the statement was produced than the process itself.

    No matter, our interest is less the science – we are not climate scientists – but the politics. Principle 15 of the UNEP’s Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states:

    “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

    Rio lays the basis for the agreements such as Kyoto, and whatever follows it. It’s not necessary for the IPCC to produce a robust consensus or certainty for there to be a framework for an international policy response to the threat of climate change. The Montreal Protocol proceeded without scientific certainty, on the same basis.

    You go on to argue that because the states contributing to the IPCC process have an interest in the underestimation of the effect of anthropogenic global warming, there is necessarily underestimation. Aside from the criticisms above, that this is equivalent to a conspiracy theory and that there is no need for certainty to drive the international political response, you take it for granted that there are no political or economic interests invested in political responses to climate change.

    But this is patently not the case. The prospect of climate change legitimises many political interests and institutions, not least the UN, UNEP, UNFCC, etc, and gives the EU an advantage domestically, and in geo-political terms, especially at a time, when, historically, Western states have found it difficult to define their purpose. (For example, you agree with some of our criticism of Oxfam, and the rise and rise of the NGO has to be understood in this context.) As we argue, it is telling that ‘the biggest threat mankind has ever faced’ has to be cast, not in its own terms, but by allusion to significant moments of 19th and 20th Century history: ‘climate change is our moon-landing’, we need to get on a ‘war footing’, we are being given a ‘green New Deal’, or our favourite: climate change denial is equivalent to slave-owning. The truth is that many stale public institutions have been given new life and new purpose by environmental anxiety.

    Finally, you illustrate the precautionary principle with the analogy of an illness caused by lifestyle. Who wouldn’t believe the doctor’s lifestyle advice?

    We don’t think that such a simple analogy can be made. It’s been made before, and we’ve criticised it before. The problem is that it’s the lifestyle that’s under the microscope, not the illness. As we argue – the politics is prior to the science. In many senses, a remedy is in search of a symptom. The environmental movement has successfully naturalised a wide range of social effects, dysphoria, or anomie that conventional political perspectives lacked the organisational and intellectual power to explain. Postmodern relativism, the confused geopolitics of the post-soviet era, and the decline of institutions in advanced capitalist society have all dealt a blow to our understanding of how the world works. In this vacuum, the environment is offered as the mediator of all relations between people. It provides a moral framework which seemingly has the virtue of having a basis in objective reality. But does it really? That’s what we want to explore on the blog. We’re not ‘climate sceptics’, we’re sceptics of environmentalism, and the illegitimate marriage of science and politics/ethics. We don’t think that climate change – real or not – demands special politics, with special political ethics, and special institutions and organisations.

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